The Hidden People (Alison Littlewood)

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4 stars

“Pretty Lizzie Higgs is gone, burned to death on her own hearth – but was she really a changeling, as her husband insists? Albie Mirralls met his cousin only once, in 1851, within the grand glass arches of the Crystal Palace, but unable to countenance the rumours that surround her murder, he leaves his young wife in London and travels to Halfoak, a village steeped in superstition.

Albie begins to look into Lizzie’s death, but in this place where the old tales hold sway and the ‘Hidden People’ supposedly roam, answers are slippery and further tragedy is just a step away …”

I’m very fond of a faery tale. Being Welsh, I’m a little more familiar with the mythologies of the Old Celtic countries than English folklore, but both seem to overlap on a key point: their depiction of faeries as wild, elemental, not-entirely-benevolent beings. This book goes one step further, dealing with old country folklore and looking at the flaws in the human condition, seeming to ask whether it is humans themselves who are the most inhuman of all…

Character: 4/5

  • Albie is not the most likeable or reliable of narrators and I think that’s one of the most interesting parts of the book. Albie is a young, rich, newly-married man, an insufferable snob and an unconscious misogynist. The story could not happen as it did without the miscommunications that occur because he does not treat his wife as a human being.
  • I actually found it really interesting to see a book written with the same condescending tone as many classics, but with that tone being used to critique the treatment of women during the period, especially those of a lower socioeconomic status. There were a number of times where Albie thought that his wife, Helena, was acting like some kind of bizarre fae creature, but as a reader you can just tell that she thinks he’s ridiculous and is upset by something that he has said and done. Once or twice I was actually scared that he might do something to hurt her. Such a unreliable point of view was frustrating and sometimes very disconcerting, but very well done.

Worldbuilding: 4/5

  • The setting of this book is amazing. I loved the descriptions of the backward, rural village with the fairy rings and the terrifying old ‘wise women’. There are some truly gorgeous scenes spent under the night sky, ethereal, charming, wonderfully creepy. You spend the entire book questioning yourself. Are fairies real? Am I maybe the one who is backward and misunderstanding? Littlewood does an incredible job of imbuing the world in such a way that you understand why folklore developed in the way that it did.
  • It makes you wonder how much of the ‘changeling’ lore was built upon the fundamental misunderstanding that women are somehow different to men? If a woman is wilful, is not subservient, miscarries a child it somehow meant that there was something wrong with them, that they were unworldly and somehow not human women. There were some parts of the story that were painful, seeing just how little control some of these women had over their own lives.

Ending: 3/5

  • Whilst I enjoyed it, I felt that the ending was maybe a little open. I suppose it would have not made much sense to impose an ending on the reader, especially after a book that had been been based so much upon questions. But I did find myself wishing that there was something more, something that made the ending memorable.

The Nitty Gritty: 4/5

  • ‘The Hidden People’ is a beautifully written book, rich and wild in the ways of some of the classics referenced within. Littlewood mentions ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Goblin Market’ in text and she manages to put some of that magic and bleakness into her own work. Think looming hedgerows and wild oaks, fairy rings and dark moons.
  • My one qualm is that I sometimes felt that the book felt a little repetitive and maybe lingered overlong on scenes that could quite happily have been condensed into one. Some of the power was maybe diluted a little by too many words.

Conclusion

  • This was not an easy read but a fulfilling one. Questions are not entirely answered, you end without feeling that you will ever be certain what it was that happened, or that those who truly deserve to be punished ever will be. But I also felt it was a strangely real book and a strangely tender one. By the end the characters are finally true to themselves, even though it might not be the most satisfying or happy conclusion. Definitely a book that I would recommend to a lover of the classics, folklore and the old tales.

For readers who enjoyed: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke) , The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter), Smoke (Dan Vyleta), Great Expectations (Charles Dickens)

Thank you very much to Quercus Books for a copy in return for an honest review.

Way Down Dark ( J P Smythe)

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4.75 Stars

“Imagine a nightmare from which there is no escape. Seventeen-year-old Chan’s ancestors left a dying Earth hundreds of years ago, in search of a new home. They never found one.

This is a hell where no one can hide. The only life that Chan’s ever known is one of violence, of fighting. Of trying to survive.

This is a ship of death, of murderers and cults and gangs. But there might be a way to escape. In order to find it, Chan must head way down into the darkness – a place of buried secrets, long-forgotten lies, and the abandoned bodies of the dead.

This is Australia. Seventeen-year-old Chan, fiercely independent and self-sufficient, keeps her head down and lives quietly, careful not to draw attention to herself amidst the violence and disorder. Until the day she makes an extraordinary discovery – a way to return the Australia to Earth. But doing so would bring her to the attention of the fanatics and the murderers who control life aboard the ship, putting her and everyone she loves in terrible danger.

And a safe return to Earth is by no means certain.” (Hodder Books)

 

When I think about this book, I’m reminded of the front cover, or, more specifically, of a less stylized central well of the huge ship Australia. The protagonist looks up into the darkness, at the layer up on layer of decks, crumbling down around her, at the stained and rusted metal of the hulk that she calls home. I have a lot of feelings about this book. Touching on science fiction and horror with a gothic vibe, think dystopia but in space.

Story: 4.5 /5

  • The premise caught my attention immediately. I am a huge sci fi fan, anything that takes me into the dark decaying outer reaches of space automatically ticks a massive box for me. This story focuses on the society that has been created by the environment of the ship; how people have changed how they live their lives, abandoning many of our social values to survive. It’s brutal, in many places quite gory, and touches on some dark themes but I do think that’s part of the appeal. I really enjoyed the direction that the story took and can’t wait to see how it continues.

Character: 3.5/5

  • The characters seem pretty uncomplicated, the book doesn’t delve any great depths in Chan’s soul. I felt that if we had replaced Chan, nothing much really would have changed. A bit like Darrow from Red Rising, Chan felt like a figurehead the story rode upon, rather than the central personality of the story itself. Not that I think that’s a problem, some books are character driven, others are world driven and this book just happens to be one of the latter.
  • That being said, I did care about the protagonist and those that she met on her way. This book wouldn’t have worked if you didn’t genuinely feel upset about the idea of Chan or those around her dying. Probably my favourite character of the lot was Jonah, a young man raised in one of the strange cults found at the very apex of the ship. Interestingly, there was no romance between Chan and Jonah, simply what could be counted as friendship in the increasingly uncertain environ of the ship.

Worldbuilding: 5/5

  • Smythe creates a brutal world filled with humans returning to primeval states and end of day cults. Every moments of the characters lives are spent eking out survival on the dying hulk of the Australia. You have those who have reverted to a base state of violence, those who desperately try to keep the old systems of the ship alive for future generations, and those who believe their suffering has some kind of higher meaning.
  • I ended up having a really vivid view of the ‘Australia’ in my head, a sad semi-abandoned infinity-bound ship, whose inhabitants were many many generations removed from the first that had called it home. They had little choices in their life, with options growing ever and ever smaller as the ship begins to fail.

Ending: 4.5/5

  • Ok, I admit, the twist wasn’t all that shocking. I’m not sure whether that’s because I’ve watched too many sci fi movies, but regardless, I found I didn’t really care that it wasn’t too much of a surprise. I wanted to grab a copy of the second book immediately after reading it, partly because it ended on a strange pseudo cliffhanger and, partly just because I love Smythe’s writing style.

The Nitty Gritty: 5/5

  • Did I mention that I love Smythe’s writing style? It somehow manages to be stark, creepy and yet, at the same time, imbued with a dreamlike quality. Pacing was, likewise, impeccable. ‘Way Down Dark’ isn’t a fast book by any definitions but it never felt as if it was dragging, every moment felt tense and necessary.

Conclusion: A dark and gripping ode to survival in a world where what makes us human seems less and less clear cut. One to begin because you enjoy the old sci fi classics, and one to finish because you’ve fallen for it entirely on its own merits. Definitely a book I will be recommending to the sci fi inclined teenagers and adults that I know.

For readers who enjoyed: Red Rising (Pierce Brown), Illuminae (Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff), Battlestar Galactica (2004 remake)

 

Thank you to Netgalley and Hodder Books for a copy in return for an honest review.